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5. Finally, although the old ideals of
murūʾa with its twin virtues of cour-
age in war and hospitality in peace remained in force, there appeared a new set of
Christian ideals such as chastity, with which the Arab pre-Islamic poet had not
been familiar. The poet who gave this new Christian dimension its best expres-
sion was al-Nābigha, in his celebrated
sextet of verses:
Theirs is a liberal nature that God gave
To no men else; their virtues never fail.
Their home the Holy Land: their faith upright:
They hope to prosper if good deeds avail.
Zoned in fair wise and delicately shod,
They keep the Feast of Palms, when maidens pale,
Whose scarlet silken robes on trestles hang,
Greet them with odorous boughs and bid them hail.
Long lapped in ease tho’ bred to war, their limbs
Green shouldered vestments, white-sleeved, richly veil.63
III. “Byzantium in Arabic Poetry”
Ever since Meleager of Gadara had left Tyre and settled on the island of Cos
sometime in the first century b.c., the literary and cultural life of Oriens lacked
high-quality secular poetry, though literary artists continued to compose toler-
able verse.64 The Ghassānids, whose court attracted Arabian poets, brought back
poetry to Oriens, with the Provincia Arabia as its center. It was not a classical or
an indigenous tradition revived, but an exotic flower transplanted from outside
the limits of the
imperium, from the world of Arabian paganism. At the same
time, it underwent considerable transformation in Oriens; “Byzantium in Arabic
poetry” would be a convenient rubric for some of the poetry composed for the
Ghassānids. For this reason it is relevant to the cultural analyst of Oriens, who rec-
ognizes the important distinction between the Greek and Syriac elements in the
ethnic and cultural constitution of the area and who thus conceives of the region
62 See J. E. Bencheikh, “Khamriyya,”
EI2, IV, 998–1009.
Dīwān, 46–48; trans. R. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (1907; reprint,
London, 1969), 54. Though the version has some inaccuracies, it is adequate to illustrate Ghassānid
64 For Meleager and Antipater, see Al. Cameron,
Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (Oxford,
1996), 952 and 111. For Philodemus, see P. Treves and D. Obbink, ibid., 1165–66. For specimens of
these poets, see P. K. Hitti,
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
in bicultural terms.65 This biculturalism must now be reexamined as the role of
the Ghassānids in Oriens is recognized. A new strand, Arabic poetry, enters into
the texture of the cultural life of Oriens, both allied to Syriac in the wider Semitic
context and distinct from it in various ways. In the enumeration of the cultural
centers of Oriens, the historian gives prominence to Gaza in Palestine, Beirut in
Phoenikê, Antioch in Syria Prima, and Edessa in Osroene. This map of the cul-
tural landscape in Oriens is necessarily modified when the Provincia Arabia and
Palestina Secunda are recognized as cultural centers of Arabic poetry to be added
to the four provinces of the diocese already listed.
Arabic poetry composed for the Ghassānids in the sixth century did not
affect Byzantine literary art in Oriens or elsewhere, unlike that of the sister lan-
guage Syriac; for example, the Syriac metrical hymns of Ephrem influenced those
of Romanus the Melode. So the two Semitic peoples, the Aramaeans and the Jews,
represented by Ephrem and Romanus, contributed much to Byzantine cultural life
directly through sacred song.66
Because no sacred poetry or hymns that may have been composed for the
Ghassānids have survived, it is not possible to gauge how Syriac works may have
affected this form of Arabic poetry. The detectable connections seem to be lim-
ited to the poetic lexicon, which has been noted in the case of al-Nābigha.67 More
substantial lexical influence can be found in the
dīwāns of two poets, Umayya ibn
Abi al-Ṣalt and ʿAdī ibn Zayd, who flourished in Ṭāʾif in Arabia and in Ḥīra of the
Lakhmids, respectively; Ṭāʾif, in western Arabia, was within the sphere of influ-
ence of the Ghassānids and their overlord, Byzantium.68
Although Arabic poetry did not affect literary art in pre-Islamic non-Arab
Oriens, it did so in Umayyad times, which witnessed a flowering of Arabic poetry
and song in Bilād al-Shām, exemplified by the relationship of the Umayyad court
poet, the Christian al-Akhṭal, to al-Nābigha.69 It may even have influenced
Byzantine verse through the Arab John of Damascus, the Church Father who was
also a distinguished hymnographer and musician. Before he took the monastic
garb at St. Sabas, he had been the boon companion of Yazīd, the Umayyad caliph
who was also a poet.70 The extent to which John of Damascus was influenced by
65 See F. Millar,
The Roman Near East, 31 B.C. to a.d. 337 (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), reviewed by
the present writer in
Catholic Historical Review 81 (1995), 251–52.
66 For B. Baldwin the Jewish background of Romanus is not certain; see his “Romanos, the Melode”
ODB, III, 1807.
67 See F. A. Bustāni,
al-Nābigha al-Dhubyāni, al-Rawāʾiʿ 30 (Beirut, 1931), p. KB note 2. Not all the
words cited there are loans from Syriac.
68 See F. Gabrieli, “ʿAdī B. Zayd,”
EI2, I, 196; J. E. Montgomery, “Umayya B. Abī l-Ṣalt,” EI2, X, 839.
69 On Akhṭal, see S. Ghāzi,
al-Akhṭal (Cairo, 1979), 217–21.
70 See J. Naṣrallah,
Saint Jean de Damas: Son époque, sa vie, son oeuvre (Harissa, Lebanon, 1950),
the explosion of Arabic Umayyad poetry and song around him is not clear, but that
it had some impact seems plausible.
In considering the contribution of the Semitic peoples of Oriens to its cul-
tural life, a return to Romanus is appropriate. Although he became a Christian
saint and spent his years as hymnographer in Constantinople, whither he went
during the reign of the emperor Anastasius (491–518), he was born in Emesa
(Ḥims), a city whose strong Arab character must still have been present in the sixth
century, as the visit of the poet Imruʾ al-Qays to it around 540 suggests. The two
sister Semitic peoples of Oriens have thus contributed two major metrical forms
to world literature. Romanus perfected the
after him al-Nābigha perfected the
qasīda, both forms that have enjoyed remark-
able longevity in the annals of Byzantine and Arabic literature respectively. The
τίκτει (“Today the Virgin brings into the world the one Transcendent, beyond all
being”), is still sung annually every Christmas in the churches of the Orthodox;
the Suspended Ode of Imruʾ al-Qays, a
qasīda with the splendid opening verse
“Halt! Let us shed tears in memory of a departed love and her abode,” is still in the
front rank of Arabic poetry. And no less enduring is the
Damascus, which resonates in Orthodox Churches on every Easter Day: Χριστὸς
ἀνέστη ἐκ νεκρῶν . . . (“Christ has risen from the dead . . .”).
IV. Poetry at the Byzantine Court
The Ghassānids were not the only
flourished. That art was well known and welcomed at the courts of other “bar-
barian” groups and
Vandals. The rulers and kings of these other groups received panegryrics from
poets, as the Ghassānids did, and so did the
Arabic Poetry in Byzantium in Late Antiquity
While the poetry composed for the other
to Byzantinists and has often been regarded as part of Byzantine literature in late
antiquity, that composed for the Ghassānids is virtually unknown. It has never
appeared in a history of Byzantine literature, for very good reasons. In this world
of late antiquity, which privileged Greek and Latin, a language such as Arabic
must have been viewed as an alien tongue of a “barbarian” group whose image
71 Scholars believe that poetry became established at the imperial court during the reign of
Theodosius II; on poets of the fifth century during his reign and that of Zeno and of Anastasius, see
Al. Cameron, “The Empress and the Poet: Paganism and Politics at the Court of Theodosius II,” in
Literature and Society in the Early Byzantine World, article III, 270, 281–82.
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
in Byzantine historiography was somewhat tarnished. Furthermore, Arabic had
no relation to any of the three constituent elements of Byzantinism; in contrast,
its sister cognate Semitic language Syriac/Aramaic was the language of Christ
himself, and was thus esteemed within the Bible-centered empire of Byzantium.
Indeed, Syriac became within that Christian empire the lingua franca of
Viewing Arabic from a biblical perspective, the Byzantines saw it as the lan-
guage of the Hagarenoi and the Ishmaelites, both pejorative labels related respec-
tively to Hagar, the maid of Sarah, and to Ishmael, the son of Hagar and Abraham,
whose descendants, the Arabs, were outside God’s promise and covenant. Even in a
secular context, Strabo had criticized Arabic as a language difficult to pronounce.72
It was, therefore, natural that the Byzantines of late antiquity, particularly in the
sixth century, should have failed to associate poetry with the Arabs. The people
were known to them as
allied them to the hostile pastoralists, and often identified them with a people
whom Procopius and his school accused of treachery to the Roman cause.73
Arabic Poetry in Byzantium after Yarmūk (636)
The very same battle, Yarmūk, that caused the downfall of both Byzantium and the
Ghassānids in Oriens also brought about a revolution in the fortunes and status of
Arabic and its speakers—not the Christian Ghassānids but the Muslim Arabs of
the Peninsula. From this time onward, Arabic poetry has close connections with
Byzantium; it is no longer peripheral as it had been in a distant province of the
empire, namely, Arabia in Oriens. Arabic becomes the language of the Islamic
caliphate, which superseded Sasanid Iran as Byzantium’s enemy. Previously, it had
been the limited concern of the empire’s Office of the Barbarians, which dealt with
foederati and with the Arabian Peninsula. Now, it is the official language of a vast
empire, and Constantinople takes it seriously.
Arabic became the linguistic medium of all the poetry that was composed
by Muslims on the Arab-Byzantine conflict in Umayyad and Abbasid times, and
imperial Byzantium became aware of it. The emperor Nicephorus I (802–811),
himself of Arab origin, expressed interest in the poetry of Abū al-ʿAtāhiya, the poet
Geography, XVI.iv.18. The Arabs countered by calling non-Arabs ʿAjam, “dumb,” because
they were unable to pronounce Arabic correctly. The term already appears in the poetry of al-Nābigha;
F. Gabrieli, “Adjam,”
EI2, I, 205.
BALA II, 9–65. For Procopius and his school, represented by Agathias, Menander, Evagrius,
and Theophylact, see
BASIC II.1, 5.
zuhd, in Baghdad.74 Even more important was what happened in the
tenth century during the Byzantine
reconquista. This was the period of the epic
Arab-Byzantine conflict, which featured Nicephorus Phocas and John Tzimisces
on the Byzantine side, and the Ḥamdānid Sayf al-Dawla and his chivalrous brother,
Abū Firās, knight and poet, on the Arab. The period witnessed also the
the foremost Arab poet of medieval Islam, al-Mutanabbi, the poet of Islamic
against the Byzantines. Consequently, the Ḥamdānids of Aleppo and their poet
laureate, al-Mutanabbi, figure prominently in the Arab-Byzantine relationship.
1. Nicephorus Phocas expressed a negative response to a verse composed by
al-Mutanabbi.75 He sent a long comminatory poem to al-Muṭīʿ, the Abbasid caliph
in Baghdad. It elicited a reply composed in the same meter and rhyme.76 It was a
remarkable demonstration of a
lier in this chapter) was common among the Arabs.
2. The brother of Sayf al-Dawla, the poet Abū Firās, was taken prisoner, and
he languished for some years in Constantinople (962–966); during that period he
All this is related to the poetry composed for the Ghassānids before the fall of
the dynasty. The stay of Abū Firās in Constantinople, though as a prisoner, evokes the
visit of Imruʾ al-Qays to Justinian, around a.d. 540, an incident that the Ḥamdānid
poet no doubt recalled.78 More important and relevant here was the association
of another poet of the Ghassānids, al-Nābigha, with the events of this late period.
During a campaign against the Byzantines, and accompanied by al-Mutanabbi, Sayf
74 See N. M. El-Cheikh,
Byzantium Viewed by the Arabs (Cambridge, Mass., 2004), 95. El-Cheikh
doubts the Arab origin of Nicephorus, but there is good evidence for it, and Bury and Vasiliev accepted
it, following the Oriental sources. See J. B. Bury,
History of the Byzantine Empire (Madison, Wis., 1952), 271.
75 Ferreted out and discussed by G. J. van Gelder, “Camels on Eyelids and the Bafflement of an
Emperor: A Line of al-Mutanabbi ‘Translated’ into Greek,” in
Proceedings of the XIIth Congress of the
International Comparative Literature Association, München 1988, III, Space and Boundaries in Literature
(Continuation), ed. R. Bauer and D. Fokkema (Munich, 1990), 446–51. In this article, the Arabic source
cited in reference to Nicephorus and Mutanabbi’s verse is the eleventh-century man of letters Ibn Sinān
al-Khafāji; see his
rescue of Mutanabbi and explained away the negative response of Nicephorus in his
from Pisides to Geometres, 19–20.
76 The poem was no doubt composed for Nicephorus by someone in the Arabic-speaking commu-
nity in Constantinople, clear evidence that Arabic was established as an important foreign language in
Constantinople and that Arabic verse had its practitioners in the capital. For the two poems, see G. E.
von Grünebaum, “Eine poetische Polemik zwischen Byzanz und Baghdad im X. Jahrhundert,” in
replies were composed to Nicephorus’ poem, in an exchange I shall discuss in a future publication.
77 On Abū Firās, see H. A. R. Gibb, “Abū-Firās,”
EI2, I, 119–20.
78 On this visit, see the present writer in “The Last Days of Imruʾ al-Qays: Anatolia,” in
and Modernity in Arabic Literature, ed. I. J. Boullata and T. DeYoung (Fayetteville, Ark., 1997), 207–18.
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
al-Dawla sent one of his divisions on a raiding expedition that was carried out suc-
cessfully. When he rejoined the division, one of its warriors unsheathed and dis-
played his sword, bloodied and blunted from the encounter. Sayf al-Dawla admired
it and recited a well-known couplet from the celebrated epinician ode of al-Nābigha
on the Ghassānids: “One fault they have: their swords are blunt of edge/Through
constant beating on their foemen’s mail.” Al-Mutanabbi watched him recite the cou-
plet, then he extemporized a quatrain in which he expressed his admiration for the
couplet of the pre-Islamic Ghassānid poet, lauded the Ḥamdānid prince, said that
he understood the place of the poet in the estimation of Sayf al-Dawla, and consid-
ered al-Nābigha a happy man for having been remembered by Sayf al-Dawla (a con-
noisseur of Arabic poetry) on such an occasion so long after his death.79
That the Ḥamdānid prince chose a couplet from al-Nābigha’s famous ode
on the Ghassānids in celebrating his victory makes plain that poetry in praise of
the Ghassānids was very much alive in the consciousness of later Arab dynasties—
especially those who ruled in the same region—even three centuries after the
demise of the Ghassānids. It was ironic that a couplet in an epinician ode com-
posed for a Christian Ghassānid king fighting
Muslim prince fighting
against Byzantium; the odes of al-Nābigha were clearly still
alive in the tenth century.
This long chapter on poetry at the Ghassānid court has targeted a gap in the
cultural history of Oriens in the proto-Byzantine period. In addition to filling
that gap, the chapter is a prolegomenon for a better understanding of the fortunes
of Arabic poetry in the new context of the Arab-Byzantine literary relationship
in Islamic times, during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods. The involvement of
Nicephorus Phocas of the tenth century in Arabic poetry appears no longer as an
isolated aberration but as a link in a long chain of Arabic poetry written in the
course of these centuries, some of which was composed in Constantinople. The
tracing of the strands of continuity has extended them retrospectively back three
centuries before the rise of Islam through a federate Arab literary tradition, the
culmination of which was the poetry on the Ghassānids in sixth-century Oriens.
Dīwān al-Mutanabbi, ed. ʿA. al-Barqūqī (Cairo, 1930), II, 286 note 8. The English version of
al-Nābigha’s verse on the Ghassānids is that of Sir Charles Lyall, quoted by Nicholson,
of the Arabs, 54.
Poetry at the Court of the Occidental
Poetry composed for a group of
remained unknown to members of the Byzantine literary world, outside a narrow
circle in Ghassānland and possibly a few in Petra and Palmyra. By contrast, the
poetry composed for the other “barbarian” groups of Byzantium in the Roman
Occident was well known.
The Vandals provide a useful comparison in this context because of their
involvement with the Arabs.1 The Arab
foederati of Byzantium in the fifth century,
the Salīḥids, were enlisted by Emperor Leo I (457–474) for his Vandal War.2 It was
in its aftermath that the Vandals were recognized as
1. Like the Arabs, the Vandals are technically
foederati,3 although some
important differences obtained between the two peoples in this regard.
2. As Arians and Monophysites, respectively, the Vandals and Arabs both
were heretics or at least non-orthodox from the point of view of Chalcedonian
3. Both Vandals and Arabs became patrons of poets who eulogized them. Of
these Vandal poets, Florentinus may be singled out; he eulogized Tharasamund
(497–523), a descendant of the founder of the dynasty, Gaiseric.4
Unlike the Ghassānids, the Vandals did not have a tradition of poetry in a
native language through which praise could be expressed.5 Hence it was in Latin,
the language of the Roman Empire, that poetry was composed for the Vandals; in
contrast, Arabic, the language of Ghassānid poetry, was understood and appreci-
ated only by the Arabs of federate and Rhomaic Oriens.
1 On the Vandals and poetry, see J. W. George, “Vandal Poets in Their Context,” in
Romans, and Berbers: New Perspectives on Late Antique Africa, ed. A. H. Merrills (Aldershot, Eng.,
2004), 133–43. See also Y. Hen,
Roman Barbarians: The Royal Court and Culture in the Early Medieval
West (Basingstoke, England and New York, 2007).
3 The Ghassānids, like the other Arab allies in the preceding two centuries, are called tech-
nically ὑπόσπονδοι in Greek and
foederati in Latin. For the Latin term, see Novella XXIV in the
Codex Theodosianus for the fifth-century Arab
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